Header overlay

Unpacking My Grandparents’ Books

Share this

It is one of life’s ironies that when we are young, and keen to establish our own identity and place in the world, we have little interest in the experiences of older generations; by the time we come to find their stories fascinating, it is often too late. I remember my paternal grandparents as a rather severe elderly couple who, on their annual visits from Frankfurt, seemed to cast a pall of gloom over the household. After my parents’ divorce we lost contact, so I had little idea of who they really were or what they had experienced in the course of their eventful lives. Then, a few years ago, I inherited a small collection of books that had belonged to them. Along with some old photo albums and other family mementos, they revealed a rich inner life.

The family were originally from Breslau (now Wrocław in Poland) but moved to Dresden in 1922. My grandfather, Alfred Schüler, was working as a lawyer for a pharmaceutical company when, in September 1935, the political situation in Germany persuaded him to take his wife Hedwig and their younger son Andreas to Barcelona. After the Spanish Civil War broke out the following year, they were forced to move once again, to Genoa, where my father joined them in 1938. After a brief return to Spain in 1939, they obtained permission to emigrate to the USA, and for eleven years Alfred worked as a night auditor at the Hotel Plymouth in New York. In 1955 he was offered a position with the United Restitution Organization, the legal aid service set up to help victims of Nazi persecution seek financial compensation from the German government. They posted him to their office in Frankfurt am Main, where – one of the few Jews to resettle in Germany after the war – he worked until his retirement in 1973.

As I unpacked the books in our London flat, blew the dust from their tops and read the inscriptions and dates on the flyleaves, I became aware that each one embodied a narrative beyond the one printed on its pages in h

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

It is one of life’s ironies that when we are young, and keen to establish our own identity and place in the world, we have little interest in the experiences of older generations; by the time we come to find their stories fascinating, it is often too late. I remember my paternal grandparents as a rather severe elderly couple who, on their annual visits from Frankfurt, seemed to cast a pall of gloom over the household. After my parents’ divorce we lost contact, so I had little idea of who they really were or what they had experienced in the course of their eventful lives. Then, a few years ago, I inherited a small collection of books that had belonged to them. Along with some old photo albums and other family mementos, they revealed a rich inner life.

The family were originally from Breslau (now Wrocław in Poland) but moved to Dresden in 1922. My grandfather, Alfred Schüler, was working as a lawyer for a pharmaceutical company when, in September 1935, the political situation in Germany persuaded him to take his wife Hedwig and their younger son Andreas to Barcelona. After the Spanish Civil War broke out the following year, they were forced to move once again, to Genoa, where my father joined them in 1938. After a brief return to Spain in 1939, they obtained permission to emigrate to the USA, and for eleven years Alfred worked as a night auditor at the Hotel Plymouth in New York. In 1955 he was offered a position with the United Restitution Organization, the legal aid service set up to help victims of Nazi persecution seek financial compensation from the German government. They posted him to their office in Frankfurt am Main, where – one of the few Jews to resettle in Germany after the war – he worked until his retirement in 1973. As I unpacked the books in our London flat, blew the dust from their tops and read the inscriptions and dates on the flyleaves, I became aware that each one embodied a narrative beyond the one printed on its pages in heavy German black-letter type; that of a cosmopolitan literary and artistic culture that was obliterated in Germany by the rise of fascism but which, carried into exile, greatly enriched the wider world. The family was not deeply observant, but here were the two volumes, bound in dark blue cloth, of my grandfather’s German-language Bible, with his signature on the flyleaf over the date, ‘1.12.1934 (Channukah)’. It seems astonishing today that nearly two years into the Nazi regime, the Hebrew scripture could still be published in Germany (by Kauffmann Verlag), with the authority of the Jewish community of Berlin. One of its editors, Harry Torczyner, had already settled in Palestine by the time it appeared, while his colleague Georg Salzberger – a relative of my grandparents who had won the Iron Cross at Verdun – was rabbi at the liberal Westend Synagogue in Frankfurt until 1937. After a year’s incarceration in Dachau, he was released and emigrated with his family to London, where he established the Belsize Square Synagogue. The perplexities of Jewish history were represented by a three volume set of the works of Flavius Josephus, comprising his Antiquities of the Jews and History of the Jewish War. Translated by Dr Heinrich Clementz, they were published by Benjamin Harz of Berlin and Vienna in 1923. My grandparents were avid readers of contemporary German literature. A three-volume set of Stefan Zweig’s novellas and short stories, with leather spines and marbled boards, bore my grandfather’s signature on the flyleaf, along with the date 24 December 1930. By that time, the Austrian writer’s books could be found on the shelves of every educated German-speaking household. In this collection, tales written over many years were retrospectively assembled into a sequence Zweig called The Chain, in the manner of his hero Balzac’s Comédie humaine. I had discovered Zweig’s work for myself more than a decade earlier thanks to the championship of Melissa Ulfane at Pushkin Press and the superb translations of Anthea Bell (see SF no.6). In his haunting stories of dislocation and loss I found a world that seemed strangely familiar, like a half-remembered dream. I realize now that it was part of my cultural DNA. Another household name at the time, though little remembered today, was Paul Heyse (1830–1914); a red clothbound three-volume set of his Poems (Berlin: Wilhelm Herz, 1901) had belonged to my grandmother. Heyse was an acclaimed poet, dramatist, novelist and short-story writer, whose verses were set to music by Schumann, Brahms and Hugo Wolf, and who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1910. Among the other major literary figures of the period, Thomas Mann was represented by his novella Mario and the Magician, a lovely little hardback from Fischer Verlag in a beautifully decorated slipcase. Between the pages was a bookmark from the Dresden bookseller G. A. Kaufmann, and on the flyleaf was pencilled the date 7.6.1930. Soft maroon leather blocked with rich gold lettering encased a German translation (by H. Bock-Neumann) of Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Niels Lyhne. One of the most celebrated works of Danish fiction, and much admired by Thomas Mann, this 1880 novel tells of a young poet’s struggle to make sense of his existence. On the flyleaf, over the date ‘Am 26 Mai 1911’, was written a quotation from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
O my soul, I have given thee everything, and all my hands have become empty by thee – and now! Now sayest thou to me, smiling and full of melancholy: ‘Which of us oweth thanks? – Doth the giver not owe thanks because the receiver received? Is bestowing not a necessity? Is receiving not – pitying?’
Then there was an antiquarian curio, A Description and History of the Bastille during the Reigns of Louis XIV, XV and XVI, translated from the French and published by Herold Bros of Hamburg in 1790. The book was a gift to my grandfather from a friend: on the flyleaf was inscribed, ‘To my dear Dr Schüler, as a lasting memento of E. M. Simon, July 1933’. There were also many of the slim hardbacks produced by the Leipzig publisher Insel-Verlag which, according to Allen Lane, provided the inspiration for the King Penguin format. Launched in 1912, the series was instantly recognizable by its stiff cardboard bindings covered with bold patterned paper, on to which a label was pasted bearing the author’s name and the title. Among my grandparents’ collection were the very first of the series, Rilke’s prose poem The Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s verse drama The Fool and Death and Zweig’s Decisive Moments of Mankind, a collection of five ‘historical miniatures’ ranging from the Battle of Waterloo to the California Gold Rush. I was surprised by the number of miniature volumes my grandparents possessed, until it occurred to me that their portability enabled them to survive the frequent jettisoning of personal effects that must accompany a life in exile. They included a handful of tiny books from the Zwickau publisher Schumann Brothers’ ‘Portable Library of Italian Classics’: two marble-bound volumes containing Giovanni Battista Guarini’s The Faithful Shepherd (1819), along with one-volume editions of Giuseppe Parini’s satirical poem ‘The Day’ and Tasso’s Selected Poems (both printed in 1821). The Berlin publisher Friedberg & Mode’s ‘Théâtre Français’ collection contributed a miniature edition of Molière’s Le Malade imaginaire, while the English-language titles included a tiny Merry Wives of Windsor bound in orange leather and – between tartan boards – Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, both published by David Bryce & Sons of Glasgow. It didn’t seem right to keep all these books myself – though I would hang on to the Zweig and a few others – so I posted some to my cousin in Hawaii, a painstaking and indefatigable researcher to whom I owe much of my knowledge of family history. Others, along with a couple of the photo albums, I decided to deliver in person when I next visited another cousin in Dresden. I took the Eurostar to Brussels, and then the Thalys train to Cologne, where I spent the night in an old-fashioned hotel overlooking the Rhine. Carnival was in full swing. From Cologne, I travelled via Frankfurt, Fulda and Leipzig to Dresden; nearly thirty years after reunification, west–east train journeys in Germany can still be circuitous. As the train crossed the bridge over the Elbe, a Baroque symphony of cupolas and pinnacles unfolded. When I first visited, only a few stumpy towers arose from the blackened ruins; now, virtually the entire historic skyline has been recreated. My cousin met me at the Hauptbahnhof and drove me the short distance to her flat. After supper, I brought out the books, including several of the colourful Insel titles, and photo albums. My cousin and her husband were particularly captivated by the photos taken by my father on visits to them, which conjured back into being the lost world of the GDR: the street signs, the lampposts, the Trabants. The next morning, we took the tram to the Altstadt. In front of the Frauenkirche, the great domed church destroyed in the Allied bombing raid of February 1945 and painstakingly reconstructed between 1994 and 2005, three red buses had been set on end. Used to ferry Syrian civilians from Aleppo before it fell to Assad’s forces the previous autumn, they now formed an installation by the artist Manaf Halbouni. Entitled Monument, it was a message from one war-ravaged city to another, and a stark reminder that the saga of exile and loss is far from over.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 75 © C. J. Schüler 2022


About the contributor

C. J. Schüler explores more of his family history in his book Along the Amber Route: From St Petersburg to Venice, which was shortlisted for the Stanford-Dolman Travel Book of the Year and is available from Sandstone Press.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.